Argos has proved he can outsmart me. I’ve been trying to teach my five-month-old, 60lbs Rhodesian Ridgeback ‘recall.’ That’s when you call your dog and he happily stops what he is doing – chasing a cat or running after a car or jumping up on the Amazon delivery man, and enthusiastically runs back to you. Just like in the movies. Argos however has a tendency for selective response. On a recent morning, walking off lede, he took off at a zooming gallup and, oblivious of my call, he jumped into a nearby pond’s reeds and disappeared. He then re-emerged violently shaking his head, his teeth clamped on the neck of a very dead duck. He not only did not come when summoned, but he spent the next half hour evading my efforts at capture.
Dog trainers agree ‘recall’ is the hardest order to teach and the most critical. Most advise to hook the collar to a long lede then call him and gently tug him rewarding him with treats when he returns. Resilient ‘recall’ can take months of training. I started working in a meadow with Argos on a 30-foot lede. We saw geese, a rabbit, and all sorts of flying insects. Twice Argos took off but returned with a call, a gentle tug and a small piece of cheese. But then, whenever I hooked him to the lede, he just sat by my side. He had in his own way taught me my most important lesson: training a dog goes beyond a list of repeated techniques.
There isn’t a day that I don’t question my ability to successfully train Argos. He can be a devoted angel, with a pro ‘heel’ on our morning walk only to metamorphose into a snipping, whirling, leaping brown blur. Some days, he lets me jump over him as he lies down immobile. Other times, he digs in his heels and refuses to follow me on leash or nips my calves. It is exhausting. For me and probably also for Argos.
I know I have a narrow window for basic training. Around his sixth month – thats next week – he becomes a teenager, a metamorphose that lasts for another year or more. That’s when ignoring commands becomes a skill. Ridgebacks lose the desire to listen and cooperate. Ridgeback males can hit 100lbs as adults. They are stubborn and strong. A lunge on leash can pull you to the ground. For several weeks now, I’ve been feeling that I am trying too hard, wanting too much, stuck in a rut of my creation. The COVID puppy boom has booked in-person dog trainers for the next year. Facebook floods my feed with smiling, energetic and magical trainers that promise to teach behavior techniques that – at a price – will deliver a perfect pet. Even The Wall Street Journal has become a financially-focused canine expert.
Puppies are apparently not trained in utero to appreciate the wonders of the loose leash. Argos took to the leash with the speed and strength of a lede horse at a chariot race. Argos is quick to show his frustration. He jumps on my chest only to dash behind and jump on my back. I’ve sourced the extensive dog internet, called friends, re-read a few of my dog books and spent a considerable amount of time lying on the floor, eyes closed, analyzing my failures. I felt stuck, frustrated, unsure. I had expected the final product – a trained puppy – could be created with specific ingredients.
Perhaps, part of this is due to decades of being a reporter, digging and pushing for information and for access. As a TV correspondent, my producer nicknamed me ‘bulldozer.’ It’s taken me a while to admit that my strengths as a journalist are not techniques appreciated by a puppy. A few years ago, I hit a similar wall when my family and I lived in Nepal. The capital Kathmandu was home to more than 20,000 stray dogs. Thirty of these lived on my street. I feared and avoided them. With time many became my walking companions. I learned their habits. Absorbed their wisdom. Fed them. Mutual respect meant I even began to appreciate their nighttime howling. I let them guide me. Recently, a friend suggested I watch ‘Stray’ a love letter of a documentary filmed in Istanbul that follows the lives of several stray dogs. The camera trails them at dog level but never interferes. Dignified and quiet, gentle but street savvy, the dogs are oblivious to humans’ problems. It was the balm I needed.
There is no meanness in Argos. No anger. No dislike. He greets with exuberance every dog and every human and chases every squirrel. He responds to recall most of the time though at times at a slow walk. Argos likes to sit on my feet. Crawl between my legs. Steal my slippers. He follows me everywhere. Even into the shower. When I take him shopping at Rural King, or Lowe’s, he is a people-magnet. His loose leash has good moments. Yes, he caught the duck and also dug up and ate a goose egg. But it’s also the miniature white butterfly bivouacs that mesmerize him. I love watching him zig zag, leaping, left and right, up and down trying to catch one. So far, they’ve out matched him.